Designation – get ahead and stay ahead

Don’t get caught out by designation – make the ‘PAS designation speed and quality crystal balls’ a permanent part of your performance management system. Get ahead by understanding on a quarter-by-quarter basis how your performance (e.g. speed of issuing decisions, quality of decision making) stacks up against the government’s performance measures. In December for the first time councils will be put on notice of designation for poor quality decision making – the two year period being assessed for this has already passed (April 2015-March 2017) so don’t wait until December; use our crystal ball to assess if you are at risk NOW.

PAS designation speed and quality crystal balls can be found on the knowledgehub here.

Published statistics are too old to be useful
Relying on the government’s published statistics only help you look backwards, are at least 3 months old when published, and, because they are look back over a rolling 2 year period, they don’t really help you understand how well you are performing within the period that you will finally be judged on. This means that for many councils not paying attention, it is already too late when they find out that they are under or close to the government’s designation thresholds.

Manage performance in ‘real time’
The PAS designation crystal ball allows you to measure your performance in as close to real time as you care to feed it your most up to date performance data. It helps show at any given time how much cushion you have / gap you need to make up between your performance and the designation thresholds.

We are encouraging ALL councils to use the crystal balls as part of their performance management framework – many councils get caught in the designation process because poor performance ‘creeps up’ and, because the reporting period is over 2 years, just a couple of poor quarters can really drag overall performance down and for some councils it leaves them little time to recover.

PAS focus
PAS uses the crystal balls on a national scale to keep an eye on how councils are performing and offering  improvement support. Our resources for doing this are finite and we can only ever get to those councils whose performance is dropping sharply and noticeably.

So, get ahead, use the crystal balls and tackle poor performance before it takes hold. Visit the khub download the toolkit and let us know how  useful you find them.



2020 Vision: Re-Imagining the Planning Service

Nostalgic for 2020

I have been reading an article about how the clever re-packaging of nostalgia is key to the success of popular TV shows like Strictly and Bake-Off. These shows provide entertainment that feels modern and at the same time, familiar and safe. The article asks whether this re-packaging of the safe and familiar is just a retreat from a frightening future?

It got me thinking about the financial future for local government; you know the one that’s just 3 years’ away; the one where services will be expected to pay for themselves, no longer propped up by subsidies like the Revenue Support Grant?

Will the positive noises we are finally hearing from a government waking up (the private sector have joined the chorus) to the resourcing crisis, and the mooted increase in fees, distract us from this much more frightening (not-so-far-away-it’s-imminent) resourcing future? In the short term an increase in fees may take a bit of the pressure off, plug an existing gap perhaps, but it won’t, on its own, come anywhere near being enough to meet the 2020 funding challenge. How are planning services preparing?

Minding the (funding) gap

The size of the challenge will be different for different places. Take a look at this picture produced using our new ‘Productivity & Resourcing Review’. It represents the funding gap between application fee income and the costs of delivering the service. This is a group of councils working together to imagine/design what a regional planning offer might look like. It shows the stark reality for some councils of the funding gap that has to be bridged between now and 2020.


Each horizontal bar represents a council. The black dots on the graphic represent the income received from fees. The further to the right your black dot is of the coloured column (representing the cost of the different types of work the planning service does), the less gap there is to bridge.

Productivity & Resources
Councils need to start planning now for how they are going to bridge the gap. How many know what their gap looks like or how big it is? Without having done that piece of work, it’s difficult to even start. For many in this group of councils the challenge may be difficult because of the size of the gap, but they are ahead of the game using PAS’s Productivity & Resource Review to understand where the biggest holes are and the potential threats and opportunities that lie ahead. I fear many will wait too long to do this and then realise that time has run out to do anything meaningful.

There’s competition too!

Councils being allowed to set their own planning fees would close the funding gap more quickly, and it will be an option in some guise for councils going head-to-head with alternative providers in the pilot areas (when they eventually start). The alternative provider agenda may be slower in coming that first thought but it isn’t going away. 41 per cent of the planning consultancies in the recent PlanningResource survey expressed an interest in becoming a provider and 43 per cent (the same lot?) felt that councils setting their own planning fees was a bad idea.

…and they’ll be hungry

Competition will begin with just smaller applications and some places may not, in the long-run, mind losing some of that work to the private sector. Many councils though are beginning to think about what operating in a competitive market will mean for their income when the inevitable happens and the competition moves into the major applications market and comes calling for its crown jewels. Here’s another picture for the same set of councils mentioned earlier and shows how much of their overall income comes from fees for majors.


For some of these councils fee income for majors is approaching or is over half of total fee income. Councils that are alive to this are beginning to look NOW at developing a competitive offer to customers on major applications so that they are ready to compete in the most lucrative planning applications market.

Fear comes from lack of control

Like most things that frighten us, it is the extent of control we have over a situation that plays a big part. Take devolution for example (go on, take it, please). For the pro-devolution areas no one really knows what will it will actually mean to deliver a planning service once you have control of finances, and for those rejecting the idea, what is the devolved alternative? I was struck by something that the LGA’s own Lord Porter said at our staff conference a week or so back – he is of the firm belief that those areas not embracing the devolution deals now are likely to miss the boat forever.

I am not banging the drum for devolution or any other form of self-determination or financing model for local government. What I and PAS are doing is listening to and working with the councils that are already and actively preparing to exert some control over an uncertain future with no outside financial support.

A theme deserving serious attention

So, what’s to be done? The PAS Conference in March 2017 will be dedicated to helping planning services navigate a way through a currently uncertain present (we *should* have a White Paper by then) and figuring out how to make the journey to and beyond 2020 and survive.

I’m unofficially at the moment calling our conference ‘re-imagining the planning service of the future’. We’ll have, of course, DCLG along to discuss first-hand the implications of a fresh White Paper, and the opportunity to hear from, debate and challenge a stellar bunch of Chief Execs, planners, councillors and private sector colleagues that are already thinking about how to change and re-invent planning to meet the challenges up to and beyond 2020. Book on and join us here.

Ombudsman the bogeyman?

Ombudsman cases: does the risk warrant the reaction?

We’re starting another round of support for councils struggling to process applications quickly enough. A lot of our support helps councils make their processes slicker. One of the most common things to slow a process down is having lots of checks and hand-offs built into it.  These build time and cost into the process and, counter-intuitively, often make it more vulnerable to error (the next person will pick up anything I miss).

Many hand-offs and checks are built-in after an error, omission or failure-to-do-something resulted in an ‘Ombudsman Case’ (usually a few years ago). The checks and hand-offs are normally applied ‘across the board’, with little regard for the type/variety of work in the system and therefore no real understanding of the risk that an ‘Ombudsman Case’ really represents.

How big is the risk?

So, does the time and cost of the checks and hand-offs justify the risk/probability of a case ending up in front of the ombudsman? I did a 5 minute bit of research. You can search the Local Government Ombudsman website so I looked for cases that involved ‘planning applications’ over a 2 year period (April 2014 – April 2016). The number was about 2,400 cases. If you consider that councils process around 600,000 planning applications a year then my Ombudsman cases represent about 0.6% of applications.

A colleague recently worked out that you can save around 2 days of time if you manage to shave 1 minute off of the processing time of every thousand applications you handle. Consider how many minutes (hours, days) are taken up by unnecessary checking, hand-offs, and cases sitting in the backs of queues. So if every council in England saved itself a minute by eliminating a hand-off the sector would buy itself around 3 years’ worth of extra time to deal with planning applications.

Once bitten thrice shy?

I understand why checks are introduced – no one wants the expense and bad publicity of an Ombudsman case. But does the risk really justify the approaches taken by some councils? I know of at least one council that checks that the right consultees have been consulted at least 3 times during the processing of an application.

Now you may say that it is because of the checks and hand-offs that the ombudsman cases are so low. But even if every ombudsman case was a planning case that would still only amount to 20,000 (more crude research) a year – a mere 3% of total planning cases processed.

My research was quick and crude and a bit of idle fun (I am sure someone closer to the subject than me will challenge the numbers), but I hope it will help all of us feel a bit more comfortable about abandoning a lot of the unnecessary checks and hand-offs we’ve managed to strangle our planning processes with.

Simple principles for good planning

I recently ran a session at a Planning Resource seminar and was asked to pay particular attention to innovation, shared services and outsourcing as ways of managing resources better.

Done properly, innovation of this sort is certainly the future for planning, but it’s a medium term game at best. For my session I wanted to focus on the ‘bread and butter’ challenges managers face each morning when they sit at their desks like processing more applications with fewer staff, backlogs, the ‘up-to-date-ness’ of the local plan, and the relentless assault of legislation changes etc.

There are many opportunities for quick improvement and better use of resources that exist now, in our day-to-day work and are being missed simply because we are too busy doing what we do, instead of asking ourselves ‘why’ we do it? Most councils are addressing the resourcing challenge by using tools to stay out of trouble (e.g. extensions of time) and looking to pass more cost on to customers (e.g. pre-app, PPAs, paid-for appointments). Fewer, though, are thinking differently about why they do what they do.  

Friend of PAS and ex-Hastings planning manager, Raymond Crawford, while out-and-about helping councils get better, has been asking the ‘why?’ question and has come up with some ‘key principles’ for managing a DM service. PAS liked them so much we took the same idea and produced something similar for plan making; ‘key principles for managing the Local Plan’.

It’s all about perspective

For me, what Ray has hit upon are some fundamental truths about how councils ‘do planning’ that are often ignored. This leads to a loss of perspective, creates unnecessary complication and ultimately hampers improvement and progress. Examples include: treating all work as equal; checking/duplicating everything so as to avoid ‘that complaint we got once back in 1986’, or simply pinning our hopes on ‘the new IT system’ (again first promised back in 1986).

A shift in thinking

We all roll our eyes when we hear someone answer: ‘because that’s how we’ve always done it’, but it’s us managers that have created the systems and ways of working that trigger this response. The ‘key principles’ are NOT about how to do things – they are about taking a step back, asking ‘why?’, stating a few home truths and stimulating useful conversations.

Ray’s principles help challenge how we think – by his own admission they are nothing new, but there is something about seeing things we already know written down and presented by someone else that can create a shift in our thinking (sometimes it’s as simple as realising ‘phew, it’s not just me that thinks like this!‘). Here’s a quick overview of the principles and some of my own thoughts.

Development Management – start with variety, make risk your friend, and then stop doing things.

It is variety that makes planning wonderful. The variety in the work is the opportunity to consider different ways of working. Why do we have to follow the same rules and procedures for simple and complex cases? Why don’t we take more ‘managed risks’? Why do we hold work up with so many hand-offs and checks? Ray argues that allowing work to ‘flow’ is at least as important as having enough bums on seats, and worked out that for every minute you save, for every 1,000 applications, you gain 2 days per annum. Proof that small changes and improvements do matter.

Plan Making – start with purpose, prepare for risk and challenge, get political cover, and move as swiftly as possible

Plan making is a serious investment of time and money so it is sensible to routinely pause, reflect, listen and think. Have a clear purpose – plan making is a complex enough business, but without a clear purpose for what you are doing (again, begin with ‘why?’ not ‘how?’), the focus of the process easily turns into an endless chase to satisfy a list of regulations, rather than satisfying the aims of the plan. Plan-making is a political not a technical process; understand the different roles occupied by planners and councillors and get political ‘cover’. Risk and challenge are facts of life and risk increases in line with the time taken to make the plan. My colleague Adam Dodgshon put it nicely:

“be confident in your evidence, if it’s the right evidence to support your plan, it’s the right evidence to defend a challenge”.  Adam Dodsghon, PAS.

Can we keep getting better?

It is true that planning services have stripped themselves back to the bone and reviewed themselves to death in the last few years. But the resourcing picture is only going one way and that is why we have to keep challenging ourselves to think differently about our everyday ways of working. Yes there are rules and procedures, but how many are helpful and how many are historical? What are the practical ways that we can achieve more by thinking differently about the things we’ve done for years?

What we should always be ready for are the opportunities to make sure our planning service is as slick as it can be and customers like it.

The Government is thinking differently; the introduction of alternative providers is not just a shot across the boughs, but a clear signal of where planning is heading. Too often, planning is a ‘done to’ service, reacting and therefore usually on the back foot. We need to start thinking differently and yes, shared services and outsourcing may be the future, but not all of us are ready for that. What we should always be ready for are the opportunities to make sure our planning service is as slick as it can be and customers like it.

Keep an eye on the ‘big’ changes

By the way, I didn’t ignore the innovative stuff in my session. I asked someone that knows a lot about making shared services work to do that bit – Rachel Almond, Planning Service Manager of the West Suffolk Partnership (Forest Heath / St Edmundsbury). Anyone thinking of going down that route should speak to her.

Contact if you have any comments or for more information.

It’s ok to break the rules – re-thinking validation

If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun. Katharine Hepburn

I’m currently doing a really enjoyable piece of work helping a planning service’s validation team clear a growing work backlog by getting them to think differently about the ‘rules’. The service has over 2 weeks of work backed up. This may not sound like a disaster, but they’re a few staff down and feeling some heat from the government on their performance stats, so things feel a bit tense. They want a clean run at things. Here’s how they’re going about the work:

  1. Getting the right people in the room

The right people = those that do the job. Managers think it’s their job to come up with solutions to problems but because of all the other things they need to worry about, they normally end up getting in the way. The team know what works and what is bonkers about their job. To get the best ideas, managers should give the people doing the work the room to think and permission to challenge the rules.

00 - PIC  - west suffolk mh + validation march 2016The people doing the job are the best people to solve the problems

  1. Putting things in perspective

When under pressure, it’s easy to focus on the size of the problem (how are we ever going to clear 126 cases?) and remember the most difficult case you’ve ever worked on and assume that every case in the pile will be like that. So, the team breathed in deeply and reminded themselves: 1) variety is the norm in a planning case load; not every case in the pile will require the same amount of work; 2) 70-80% of the cases will be minor or householder applications (less work, lower risk); 3) the council is going to approve about 95% of the cases anyway.

  1. Creative problem solving

The team are the experts and know precisely how they’d do things differently (if it was up to them). So they asked themselves: ‘if we could guarantee that the planners won’t moan and our boss will take responsibility for anything that goes wrong, what shall we change, do differently, or stop doing that will help clear the backlog?’ After some initial shuffling in the seats, and a few repeated: ‘…what? It’s really up to us…?’ and, ‘you’ll clear it with the planners…?’, here’s what the team have come up with, they nicely titled it: “What’s the worst thing that could happen???!!!”

Request 1: Forget the local validation list; go with National requirements only. If a case satisfies National validation requirements but falls foul of the council’s local requirements, validate it.

Request 2: Householder applications without biodiversity/ecology/heritage statements/reports. Validate the application and let the planners decide if the study is really necessary. How many cases is this really going to affect?

Request 3: Up to date contaminated land studies. Worry about whether the application has one, rather than if it is out of date. Once again let the planners decide the best course of action.

Request 4: Validate applications with no fee. ‘Red flag’ the case so no decision is made until the fee is paid. This was the only idea that really divided people, and is still being discussed. On the one hand, the fee problem may be due to the payments system, so if we know the agent then give them the benefit of the doubt – we’ll get our money. On the other hand, why should we work on a case with no fee, when others have managed to get the payment to us? An interesting and useful debate about a real issue in planning (although I have to say, in the 21st Century, I can’t believe this payment matching thing is still an issue).

Request 5: Appeals / other work (that falls to the validation team). Could the two former team members that had recently be made up to Planning Assistants help for a short period? They know the job and can get stuck in straight away.

Request 6: Relax on the descriptions of development. In this place the registered description of the development is important to get right because it is pulled through to other reports and to the decision notice. At the moment, a case can go back and forth to the planners if the description isn’t right. The team, while acknowledging that they had to get better at this, asked if the planners could relax on this for a short period.

Request 7 (my personal favourite) “Hardly any interruptions” …for 8 days? The validation team are the go-to people for anything from ‘there’s no paper in the photocopier’ to ‘the printer won’t work’. None of it their job but they happily help out. For a short period of time they asked their colleagues to sort these things out themselves.

At a meeting on the same day, these requests were put to the planners and managers. The validation team attended (it was important that they witnessed their ideas being discussed and the reactions). The new rules would only apply for a short period, and only to the backlogged cases. Each point was debated and the risks discussed. Each sticking point was quickly overcome using the perspective points made above and asking two simple questions:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • How many times in this batch of 126 applications might the worst thing happen?

It only takes half a day

Each request has been agreed (although the one about fees is, I think, still being debated). In half a day the validation team had the solution to the problem, the sanction of the planners, and the protection of their managers. Not a bad half day’s work. They’ve started on the backlogged cases and have given themselves 8 days to clear the work. They are currently ahead of schedule.

3 key learning points from this work:

  • Taking a ‘managed risk’ approach is vital to the smooth flow of any process that has as much variety in it as the planning applications process.
  • Not everything that’s missing is a show stopper. Keep cases flowing through the process wherever possible.
  • It is vital that those that do the work are allowed the space to think up their own solutions to problems, and have the backing and protection of managers to see things through. This leads to the best solutions, is good for morale and leads to ownership and commitment.

PAS improvement practice

This is a simple example of work we’ve been doing over the last 6 weeks at 10 councils focused on making a real difference in a short space of time. The PAS approach is rooted in the DM Challenge toolkit, and is about results – not spending 3 months doing a project, leaving weeks and weeks between sessions so that staff forget what it was they’re supposed to be doing, and then leaving behind a report. The work is condensed into 3 days over a fortnight. Our remit is; find out what the main problems are and why they are happening (day 1), help staff come up with the solutions (day 2), start implementing change (day 3).

The above example is just one part of a host of interventions and improvements identified at the council over the 3 days on site.

Will ‘new’ become ‘normal’?

It’s my suspicion that when the team have cleared the backlog, and review what has happened, that a few of the ‘new’ rules may become the ‘normal’ rules. I’ll be going back to get their reflections and update this blog then.

What do you think? Let me know, or if you want to know more about this work, contact me:

What does good looks like?

Last month RichardPrichard told us about the PAS ‘sector-led improvement session with the ‘Top 10’ councils . We wanted to understand what makes a good planning service good. This blog contains my reflections on the session and a preview of a new improvement support toolkit we’re developing based on the collective learning.

What have we learned about ‘good’? 

If I had to highlight 2 things it’d be these:

  1. There’s no magic formula or one good way

Saying to councils ‘do this and you’ll improve’ doesn’t work. It’s a cliché but ‘good practice’ is just ‘practice’ that works well because it fits an organisation’s goals, is properly resourced, and sits in an operating environment that allows it to thrive. We forget this while we are dismissing an idea because ‘it will never work in our place’ or making things worse because we’ve not thought through the organisational/operating aspects.

 2. Make friends with risk and only do what you have to

We do so much unnecessary work because of inconsistency of practice or because we treat and process every application in the same way. Classic questions about using site visits / site notices / or validating everything to death can effectively be addressed with a little attention to understanding the variety in your work, working through the consequences of ‘what could go wrong (really)’ and asking if everything we do is necessary all of the time.

My colleague RichardPritchard summed it up really nicely the other day when he said: “I think the overarching thing I took away from the top 10 was that most places are running on autopilot. When you compare what places do with what they *must* do the difference is staggering. No one reads the DMPO, even though it is surprisingly easy to read and understand. So, hack everything back (not just validation).”

 Good ideas aren’t enough

In the past we’ve focused too much on good practice and not enough on helping councils create the environments for the practice to work well in. There’s a whole host of things that have to be harnessed and continuously challenged if good things are going to happen in planning services. I’d bundle these together as:

  • Ways of thinking; questions, challenge, judgement, empowerment
  • Ways of doing: processes, practice, management, enablers (politics, IT)
  • Ways of measuring; the things that tell us if our thinking and doing are working

The DM Service Review Toolkit

We’ve turned these (slightly abstract) 3 ‘ways’ into a practical two-part DM Service Review Toolkit. The toolkit breaks the whole DM process down into 2 parts:

  1. the ‘Cultures and Enablers of DM Success’

good 1

2. the DM Process ‘Good Practice Crib-sheet’:

good 2

Unlike a guide or case study that simply describes an idea, the toolkit works a bit like a survey:

good 3

It steers a council through a structured series of challenges to the way it delivers the whole planning service. The crib-sheet design allows councils to make notes and capture their own thoughts, ideas, and questions that can be wrapped up into an action/change plan.  The process is straight-forward, it works by:

  • Identifying the key issues that councils are grappling with;
  • Outlines ideas for addressing them;
  • Questions, challenges and suggests measures that allows councils to do the thinking themselves to understand how to move towards a better way of working.

Different councils will require different support for doing this. For many it will be obvious who is best placed to pick up and use the toolkit and others will appreciate some independent and external help. We’re also going to test a few different formats.

 Preview – Cultures and Enablers of Success

Challenging and changing ingrained cultures doesn’t have to be like ‘turning a tanker’ that the experts will have us believe. I’ve seen enough evidence  that culture can be changed quite quickly if you empower staff doing the job and give them responsibility for inventing new ways of working. There’s also the other ‘enablers’ – the management approaches, the systems, the politics which all need to be developed alongside changes made to ways of working.  Here’s a taster of how the toolkit helps councils think about these things:

  • Performance management; links to the ‘purpose of planning’, pays attention to National Indicators but focuses on customers, allows you to understand and act
  • Financial management; understands income/ expenditure and the value delivered and received, and the impact of the service on the place (e.g. jobs, houses, economy)
  • Resource Management; organised around the variety in the work, allocates work sensibly, plans for the unexpected, gets the ‘retention’ part of ‘recruitment and retention’ right.
  • Processes and Admin: officers and members make it work, focuses on customers/outcomes, regularly reviewed and not a hostage of the ‘new IT system’
  • Political Leadership: understands the ward (local knowledge) / governance (challenge) / and committee (good decisions in public) roles and probity (of course).

 Preview – DM Good Practice Crib-Sheet

The toolkit is rooted firmly in the day-to-day aspects of the planning process as planners deliver and customers experience it. It focuses on the direct operating environment and processes of planning without getting distracted by ‘side issues’ such as the content of your staff’s annual appraisal process or if the service has Charter Marks or ISO accreditation. Here’s a taster of how the toolkit helps councils think about some selected parts of the planning process:

  •  Pre-application; it’s risky in the wrong hands; it has to be proportionate, costed properly, and focused on value not just income
  • Validation; understands the role of risk, requirements/lists regularly reviewed, asks: is every missing item really a show-stopper?
  • Consultation: staff empowered to decide how far/wide, understands the legal minimum, shares results early with stakeholders
  • Decision making: understands that ‘yes’ is usually the decision, works with customers on issues not against them, uses tools available to use time efficiently.
  • Reports: understands who they are for and the purpose they serve, understands the balance between detail and risk, and are about more than just ‘covering our backs’.
  • Committee: the triggers are understood and consistently applied, procedures are regularly reviewed, and member’s regularly input and feedback.

Testing it out and sharing the learning

We are about to go on the road with 2 events to test the toolkit out and share what we’ve learned about how the best councils organise their planning services. Councils will get a chance to use the new toolkit and access the support. You can book on the sessions here:

Dates (click to book):
1 December, Birmingham
2 December, London

Steering towards good  

Good ideas and practice have the best chance of improving things if we understand the mechanics of what makes them work in different places. The DM Review toolkit will help steer (rather than dictate) councils towards ‘good’ and give them the best chance of achieving it by asking the right questions about how good ideas work and how to make them work.


Re-Thinking Planning

Earlier this year we did some sector-led work based on Systems Thinking. We’ve completed the work with 3 councils and have made a set of case studies and filmed some interviews with the staff involved. Each council is achieving improvement and excellent customer feedback in slightly different ways by re-thinking how they deliver their planning services. Here’s a taster of what the councils themselves said about the work;

“Case officers now feel it is their system… they own it… and take opportunities to change it”.

“…put good staff in a rubbish system, the system wins every time… put practitioners in charge of changing the system… and empower them to make sure the system works for them and the customer.”

“We don’t see it as a one off project… or a change management project… it’s more fundamental. It is a mind-set and a way of operating.”

“Overall it is speeding things up… every step is assessed for the value it is giving rather than being needed for any bureaucratic purpose.”

“Customers are pleased… getting decisions so quickly… Officers decide ‘is it going to give the customer a better experience’… they’re customer, not procedure-focused’.

“…there’s an assumption it’s difficult and needs lots of money… you can free up so much time by doing only what your customers want and concentrating on getting it right first time.”

 The case studies and interviews are available here.